Know Your Opponent: Sunderland A.F.C.

Richard Sellers

We're playing the team at the bottom of the table, so why are we all so nervous?

The interviews come as fast and furious (RIP Paul Walker) as the matches these days. Just three days after our unconvincing, though desperately needed, win at Fulham, take a trip to Wearside to take on Sunderland, a team whose fortunes have been slim but who may be on the ascent after the appointment of former Spurs player Gus Poyet as manager. I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with David Boyle of The Roker Report, SB Nation's Sunderland blog, to discuss our teams and the upcoming match.  You can also read my responses to his questions over at TRR.

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Uncle Menno:  Let's get the elephant in the room out of the way first. So, your flirtation with fascism and Paolo Di Canio didn't go as well as expected. What was your overall opinion of Di Canio's appointment, aside from the fact that he didn't win? Was he given enough time? Was he given a bad rap?

David Boyle:  Wow, where to start with this one! I suppose if we're being perfectly honest the Paolo Di Canio regime ended exactly as expected: in tears. The only real mitigating factor was how long it would take before the whole thing imploded.

Make no mistake, Di Canio's appointment was a risk by the club, a massive one in fact. However looking back you can kind of understand why the chairman opted for a, how should we say, more put of the box selection. Previous to the eccentric Italian we had more standard, run of the mill managers in the shape of Steve Bruce and Martin O'Neill, neither of which were able to bring about the "success" that Elias Short expected given his investment, especially in respect of transfers.

Putting aside the political storm that greeted Di Canio's arrival, there were some reasons for optimism, namely Paolo's fantastic record while earning his badges and his commitment to weeding out some players within the squad which he deemed not good enough, something we as fans had been aware of for years.

However, ultimately, for all the talk during the week there was rarely any semblance of the tactical side of the game Di Canio himself bigged up. Couple this up with a bizarre atmosphere at the training ground which sapped away at player morale and you can begin to understand why the PDC experiment failed.

UM:  Follow-up question: What's your assessment of Gus Poyet? Is he the guy to save Sunderland from the drop?

[Gus Poyet] has got pretty much everything spot on.


DB:  I've been hugely impressed it has to say. There were maybe a few murmurings of concern among some of the fans that given the manner in which Poyet left Brighton that Sunderland were simply jumping from the frying pan and into the fire with Gus' appointment. However the Uruguayan has got pretty much everything spot on, from the way in which he has handled himself with the media to his tactics on the field, more on this later...

The Phil Bardsley saga has left something of a bitter taste in the mouth, with Poyet desperately urging fans to accept the fullback who had openly mocked Sunderland's opening day defeat to Fulham as well as the embarrassing pictures which surfaces of his antics in a local casino towards the end of last year, all of which with not a sniff of an apology. I suppose however that a few more good performances and match winning goals and all will be forgotten rather than forgiven, such is the fickle nature of the sport.

Ultimately though, with Poyet in charge, there have been numerous signs and performances that Sunderland can dig themselves out of this mess especially given a more considerate fixture list in the second half of the season.

UM:  What are the tactical differences between Poyet's Sunderland and Di Canio's Sunderland, and how do you expect they will approach the match this weekend?

DB:  There is a drastic difference to be perfectly honest. Di Canio used to take great pleasure in talking up his 4-3-3 formation and high pressing style of play, however come 3pm on a Saturday afternoon there was rarely any evidence of such a plan in action as the side seemed to revert back to a standard 4-4-2 within minutes.

With Gus Poyet, Sunderland now have an obvious style of play which is bordering on giving the club an identity for the first time since we were known for exploiting the Quinn and Phillips strike partnership back at the turn of the new millennium.

Quite how Poyet has managed to carve a possession obsessed style of play out of this crop of players is nothing short of miraculous. Gone are the days of aimless punts up the field from our back four, surrendering possession, indeed you can only imagine the wrath from Poyet if one of our defenders were to slip back into this old mentality.

Sunderland now look to play out from the back, rarely even hitting goal kicks long up the field and will look to control possession in the middle of the park with three central midfielders, probing and pressing for an opening but not rushing anything - if a chance isn't on we'll knock it back and start over again.

I'd expect us to start where we left off on Wednesday night, look to keep possession but get the ball into Altidore's feet whenever possible to exploit his superb buildup play.

UM:  You're coming off of a fantastic performance (despite the loss) against Chelsea where the only thing that kept you from three points was a world-class performance from Eden Hazard. What was different about the way Sunderland played in that match compared to some of the earlier losses?

DB:  Quite simply: goals. Sunderland have struggled to create and in turn convert enough chances to win games this year, however on Wednesday night not only did we hit the back of the net three times but we also had a number of other great chances and a decent shout for a penalty.

Chances are if you score three goals in a home game you are, in turn, going to come away with all three points - unless the opposition have someone like Eden Hazard in the kind of form he was in on Wednesday night to rely upon. This is the kind of mentality we need to keep up, especially with more winnable home fixtures to come as opposed to the rough hand we were dealt for the first half of the season where every home fixture seems to have been against a top six side.

UM:  Spurs are stuttering at the moment, but who would you identify as the biggest threats in the side? What match-ups should we be on the lookout for this Saturday? Think you might be able to nick this one?

DB:  Sunderland are not particularly blessed with great fullbacks, so I'm wary of who Spurs will employ on their wings, either the pace and trickery of Lennon or maybe Chadli on the opposite flank. Phil Bardsley and Andrea Dossena have looked a little suspect defensively of late, particularly on Wednesday night and indeed Bardsley may still be dizzy from the number of times Hazard turned him inside out.

A matchup I'm looking forward to would involve Jan Vertonghen as makeshift left back, if he shakes off a knock to make the starting eleven that is. I'm an admirer of Vertonghen as a central defender but believe that Sunderland could well look to bring Adam Johnson back into the side to look to get at him as much as possible.

As for nicking the game, after Wednesday's game, maybe. As you say, Spurs haven't been great recently but still have a fantastic side. I'd take a draw now if offered.

UM:  Jozy Altidore was on fire both internationally and with AZ Alkmaar last season, but he's struggled in both of his stints in the EPL. Why is this? What can Sunderland do to get Jozy scoring again?

DB:  Jozy, despite a lack of goals, has been fantastic, a sheer man-mountain when leading the line as a loan forward and I believe this in a way has hindered his goal return. While Steven Fletcher is a forward that can flourish up top on his own I get the impression that Altidore favours playing with a partner, something Poyet has recently discussed implementing.

As for helping the big lad grab some goals, Sunderland, as a side, simply need to create more. The likes of Emanuele Giaccherini and Adam Johnson have been especially disappointing in this respect, although there were signs on Wednesday night that as a whole we are improving in creating more clear cut goalscoring opportunities, which in turn, should lead to more goals for Altidore and co.

UM:  Pretend for a moment that Ellis Short opens up his wallet and promises a £30m transfer kitty for the January transfer window. Who would you target to improve the side?

If you guys would be so kind, I'd love to bring Danny Rose back to Sunderland.


DB:  Well, as mentioned, fullbacks are something of an issue for Sunderland so I'd certainly look to shore up in those areas, especially left back, so if you guys would be so kind, I'd love to bring Danny Rose back to Sunderland. On the right flank I'd maybe look at replacing Phil Bardsley with Micah Richards who surely needs a move away from Manchester City.

Elsewhere I'd maybe look at bringing in some more creativity to the side, possibly taking a look at Tom Ince as his contract with Blackpool winds down.

I'd also look to tie up Ki Sung-Yeung, currently on loan from Swansea, to a permanent move. This lad has been fantastic since his arrival and is pivotal to the style of play Poyet is looking to play.

UM:  I ask this question to all the rival bloggers when I do a Q&A, so it's not personal, I promise: Why will Sunderland be relegated this season? Please be thorough.

DB:  Haha, no offense taken! To be honest I probably have more faith in Sunderland beating the drop than a fan of a side in our predicament should have any right of having.

Sunderland have had an incredibly tough set of fixtures to start this campaign, especially at home. So couple some more winnable games at the Stadium of Light with the upturn in performances since Poyet's arrival and I think, come May, we will just about have enough points to see us safe. I hope.

UM:  Finally, a score prediction: who's gonna win on Saturday, and why?

DB:  I'm going to sit on the fence and go for a score draw, 1-1.

I feel Sunderland's style of play will frustrate Tottenham but still feel that you will be good enough to grab at least one goal and if Sunderland can put in a similar performance to that of Wednesday night then we should certainly be good for a goal too.

I just hope it's a good game, I feel spoiled after Wednesday night, it's rare that we're involved in such an entertaining game!

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Big thanks to David for taking the time to talk to me about his club and this weekend's match!  Go check out The Roker Report for all things Sunderland, follow @davidboyle1985 on Twitter, and be sure and check out my answers to his questions on TRR.

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